The Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin, holds a series of coffee morning talks on the paintings on exhibition in the gallery. Such talks are for about 40 minutes, followed by questions and then to coffee for a continuing discussion. This was my talk, on the 22nd June 2016, given before the great canvas (10′ x 8′) that is Sir John Lavery’s “High Court – The Appeal of Sir Roger Casement” The painting was on exhibition as part of the 1916 centenary celebrations, surrounded by important paintings of many of the characters who appear in the painting itself.
May I welcome you to the Royal Courts of Justice, and in particular, here, to the Court of Criminal Appeal. It is, as you can see from the clock upon the oak paneled wall, it is , almost High noon. The date is 19th of July 1916.
The case has been called on, and the prisoner is in the dock, guarded. There is standing room only and almost every barrister in the Royal Courts building is here, for this is the most important state trial of the 20th century. And all of London wants to see it.
The King against Casement.
Mr. Justice Darling is presiding. Look at him, he’s such a handsome fellow is he not?, in his scarlet robes, see how he commands his courtroom, stern, straight backed, he has been caught in noble profile and all eyes in the court are upon him.
You see there are two perspectives in this painting, the internal perspective, where everyone’s attention is upon Judge Darling, with most eyes in the court are drawn towards him, and then there is an external perspective, our view, where the central focus is upon, right in the middle of this huge canvas, Mr. Casement, seated in the barred dock. Very clever chap that Lavery. His client, the man who invited him to do the painting, Darling, has of course, to be portrayed rather prominently, but Lavery also, I think it is obvious, has an empathy with the prisoner, so he gives us them both. The English judge and the Irish felon.
I should tell you that Darling was rather a vain man. He had his portrait painted several times, look at the one behind you, painted by Charles Wellington Furse, a very expensive portrait artist indeed, painted when Darling was but a simple junior counsel. Not many barristers commission their portraits as junior counsel. Few would wish to announce such ambition, and fewer still would be able to afford the likes of Charles William Furse. There is another one of him, painted when he was first appointed to the bench, by Henry, the outstanding Scottish portrait artist, one of the Glasgow boys, which is really rather wonderful. I will give you the web reference at the end and you will see for yourself.* Oh he was handsome fellow was Darling. And he knew it! There are several other portraits of him by Grenville Eves, even by Winston Churchill, as well as several caricatures completed for Vanity magazine.
Lavery had painted him once before. A few years earlier, wearing a black cap and pronouncing a sentence of death. Not deemed by many of his colleagues in the law to be in very good taste. He’s a wit, can be very funny at times, and he’s a poet, written a rather good volume of poetry. He was considered once, oh a few years after this trial, for the post of Lord Chief Justice of England. Didn’t get the job. This chap sitting next to him got it instead. Judge A. T. Lawrence. Lawrence was 78 years old by then. Darling was 73. He would always say, he would always tell you, that he didn’t get the job because he was too young.
He was a Unionist, no doubt about that at all. As a member of parliament he always voted against Home Rule. He is a great friend of Carson. Thinks Carson is most unlike most Irishmen, says that unlike the rest of you Irish, Carson is incapable of speaking balderdash. He invited Carson you know, to join his chambers when Carson left the Irish Bar to transfer to the English Bar. They were in chambers together as K.C.’s when Carson took the brief for the Marquis of Queensbury.
He sits with his four colleagues, first one here is Judge Scrutton, He has three sons fighting in the Great War, two are on the Somme and one in the Balkans, up near Thessalonica. So you can well imagine that he may have some reservations about a prisoner who was suborning captured crown’s soldiers in Germany. One of his sons will be killed within a month of the trial. Then there’s Judge Bray, Darling of course , Lawrence we have already mentioned, and on the end Judge Atkin.
Oh Judge Atkin!
He is probably the most famous judge in the whole of the common law world, You won’t find a student of law, a solicitor or barrister or judge or judicial assistant who doesn’t know of Atkin and who will, at some stage of their careers, have quoted the judge. He almost invented the law of negligence and I could not possibly exaggerate his importance to the law. He is to the law as Arthur is to Guinness. What a pity Lavery has not captured more of him, but of course at the time of the trial he was not quite so famous as he would subsequently become.
Look here’s another famous fellow. The paintings full of them. F.E. Smith. Carson’s galloper, Attorney General, chief prosecuting counsel and a deep deep unionist; from an Orange constituency in Liverpool, Birkenhead. Even his birthday falls on the 12th July. A bit of a gun-runner himself and certainly young Winston Churchill, an up and coming star of the political stage, has described some of his speeches in favour of unionism as being fairly close to promoting naked revolution. Good judge of character that Churchill. Keep an eye on him.
Showing him the law-book is one of the prosecution junior counsel, Mr. Bodkin. Another famous character, banned Ulysses when he became Director of Public Prosecutions, couldn’t bear Molly’s soliquity.
He’s caught the Irish fairly, has Lavery. Here’s Gavan Duffy. Oh what a hero he is! He was a solicitor in London, prosperous, going places, when he was asked to take on Casement. His partners were not at all happy about it.
You want to represent a traitor? In the middle of this awful bloody war? Make your mind up Mr. Gavan Duffy, stay with the practice or represent your Irish traitor, but you can’t do both.
To his eternal glory, as both an Irishman and as a lawyer, he chose his client. Makes him a bit of a legal hero to us lawyers. His dad was a bit of a character too. Ran the Nation newspaper here in Dublin, a fine constitutional nationalist he was, tried with Daniel O’Connell once, major figure in the Tenant League, was in the Ballingary Rising of 1848 Gone to Australia now. Become Sir Charles Gavan Duffy over there, very noble, bit less of a nationalist over there? He is now Governor General of Victoria; his other son will become Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia. This Gavan Duffy, our Gavan Duffy, will become, in the new Irish state, President of the High Court of Ireland. This is just stuffed full of important historical figures in the life of Ireland and England.
There are three women on the solicitor’s bench. Quite unusual for 1916. One is Gavan Duffy’s wife, taking notes, and the other Casement’s cousin Gertrude Bannister. She is devoted to her Roger, look at her glancing up at Roger in the dock. Are they exchanging a glance? I think they are. Lavery knew they were devoted to one another and he has put it into the painting. The other woman is Alice Stopford Green, eminent nationalist historian, helped Casement organise the Howth gun-running. Did you notice, all the ladies are wearing hats. Quite proper for 1916 I think.
You know there is a full transcript of this trial. Great read. That chap standing at the end of the bench there, he’s the court reporter, taking it all down in shorthand. It’s his transcript.
On his feet is the Dublin barrister Sgt Sullivan. Now he happens to be married to Gavan Duffy’s sister and you may think that Irish lawyers tend to keep business in the family, I can’t possibly comment on that, but there you are. In fact, Sullivan was one of the leading lights of the Irish Bar. A Sgt was a special breed of Senior Counsel, Kings Counsel as they were known then. He was destined for the bench in Ireland and would have made it if the Rising and the War of Independence hadn’t got in the way. Their only distinguishing mark, in court regalia, was a small patch of black silk set into the top of the wig. In England he was not a Kings Counsel. He was only a Junior counsel and therefore he is standing in the second row because the first row is reserved for Kings Counsel, Senior Counsel we now call them. Still is to this day.
At the trial proper, this is the appeal remember. Casement has already been found guilty of high treason and has already been sentenced to death, he was so sentenced by the Lord Chief Justice of England Ruffas Issaccs, or Lord Reading as he was known. At the trial, Sullivan had been summing up to the jury. The artist has painted this scene from the Jury Box, so he would have been addressing us, we would be the jury. He made, what in my view is a really excellent summing up speech making the best of the limited material he had. In fact, a bit too much. He sought to persuade the jury that the Irish were arming themselves for fear that the already heavily armed unionists would seek to undermine any parliamentary decision to grant home rule. He was interrupted! There was a protest, quite sharp, from both F.E. Smith and the Lord Chief Justice, who said he could not run that argument, because no evidence to that effect had been heard. You can only address the jury on evidence actually given in the trial.
He realised they were right and had to apologise – in so doing he lost the thread of his argument. It was a rather deferential apology, perhaps he thought it might affect his future plans to transfer to the English Bar. Any way he stumbled, and could not regain his composure. He collapsed into his seat saying “My Lord I cannot go on”. Of course the trial was adjourned immediately. Next day he was still not recovered and the closing speech had to be concluded by his Junior Counsel, here, Artemous Jones.
I don’t think the prisoner was very impressed.
One of the reasons Sullivan was employed for the trial, so it is said, is because no English barrister, Kings Counsel, would take it on. It was the middle of a very gruesome war, Verdun, the Somme, casualties were appalling and Casement was charged with High Treason, in time of war. But in fact there was no difficulty getting English junior counsel and I don’t quite understand, or accept that no English KC would take the case. In fact, there are two English junior counsel on the defence. One, Morgan BL, is in fact a brigadier in the Kings Army, and a professor of law. He wasn’t afraid to take on the case, even though a serving soldier. The other, here is Artemous Jones, nor was he afraid and nor did any of their careers suffer for representing a traitor. Morgan ended up a Brigadier General and an advisor to Churchill in WW2, and he was at Nuremberg. Jones became a judge. He is rather more famous as a litigant than as a counsel. It’s his name you know. A newspaper reporter had filed a story from the south of France, he was reporting on the English taking holidays in France, and as reporters sometimes do he wrote something like “And there is Artemous Jones with a lady who is not his wife” Of course he thought, quite reasonably, that it was quite impossible that anyone could possibly be called Artemous Jones. But he was wrong and Jones sued. It’s still a leading case in libel law and often cited in court, both in Ireland and in England.
And so finally in this all too brief review, we come to Roger Casement. The much smaller version of this painting, over there, is the one that W.B. Yeats saw when he visited this gallery in 1937. He wrote a poem about it “The Municipal gallery re-visited” and wrote of “Casement upon trial, half hidden by the bars” But he is not really hidden. For us, outside the larger painting, he is in fact the primary focus.
Four days the trial had lasted, and now he sits in the dock for the three days of the appeal. Was there a comma in that ancient 1351 Statute, in that handwritten Norman French parchment? Did it mean, that comma, that treason was confined to acts within the realm, and therefore acts abroad, in Germany, did not count. Not so held the court. As they had held before, just a few brief years ago, for another Irishman tried for treason, Colonel Lynch, who had commanded an Irish Brigade against the British, abroad, in the Boer war.
Three scarlet robed judges at trial had dismissed the argument. Now five scarlet robed judges at the appeal would again dismiss the argument. Why didn’t they go to the House of Lords for a father appeal? Well they wanted to, but to do so required the consent of the A.G. F.E. Smith. He was of the view that between the trial and the appeal eight of the most senior judges in the land had unanimously rejected the argument and that was enough.
So Casement will leave the dock, this court, for the gallows at Pentonville. Only appeals for clemency might now save him. And why not, for he was an international figure, he had friends in High places, in governments, writers, politicians, diplomats, ambassadors, he was active in anti-slavery movements across the globe he had a vast international network of friends and supporters. I cannot stress to you how well known he was in humanitarian circles. Everyone would have, should have, signed petitions. Even Bono would have signed.
But now the Government, the cabinet, the secret service, will launch their miserable, malicious, nasty, unprincipled black campaign to defeat the pleas for clemency and to dissuade his friends from signing or joining such appeals. It was the diaries, the so called black diaries, they circulated the most salacious pages. To Bishops, ambassadors, governments, in the clubs of London. “Look at this, he’s a homosexual, he’s a disgusting pervert, tell your friends. Don’t sign any petitions.” They undoubtedly added a fatal weight to the gallows drop at Pentonville prison.
And it meant, that this painting, conceived as a tribute to the English Law, and to Darling, lost its integrity, as did the trial itself. What had been done meant no one wanted this picture. It was left on Lavery’s hands; he couldn’t sell it even though he tried. He ended up leaving it in his will. Interestingly he did not leave it to Ireland. His first choice was the National Gallery in London. They didn’t want it; they had already declined to buy it a few years earlier. His next choice was the Royal Courts of Justice, and only if they refused it did he then think that it should go to Ireland. An indication I suggest, that he always saw this painting as being a celebration of the English law and not a celebration of Casement, or as an Irish subject.
The Royal Courts of Justice took it, didn’t know what to do with it, wouldn’t hang it in a public place. Put it in a basement office where no one saw it and no one cared about it and its importance quickly faded and was forgotten.
Sullivan it was who rescued it from obscurity. He retired here to Dublin, lived in Orwell Road, became a bencher of the Kings Inns and wrote to the Lord Chief Justice of England to try and buy it. They wouldn’t sell, even though they didn’t like and didn’t particularly want it, but the correspondence is interesting. The Lord Chief Justice writes to the Lord Chancellor. “We could let the King’s Inns have it on loan, and forget to ask for it back…”
And so here it is. Now a tribute to Casement and not to the English Law. Still owned by the British, part of their government art collection, but here on loan, permanent loan. And so far, I am pleased to tell you, they have not asked for it back.
I might before be finishing urge you, should you have found this of any interest, to go to buy the exhibition catalogue and take it with you to the Royal Courts of Justice and visit the courtroom, this courtroom, wherein Casement was sentenced to death. It is courtroom 36 in the West Green wing of the Royal Courts of Justice, take with you if you do, the catalogue, which has a copy of this great painting, and you will observe and compare, with the hairs rising on the back of your neck, how little the courtroom has changed this hundred years or so; the oak panelling still encloses the space, the bookcase is still there, probably with the same books within it as were there in 1916, the clock still ticks on the wall; you will be aware you are in a place of death, a battleground of Irish history,and perhaps, a place of pilgrimage
Shall we go to coffee?